History of Labour Movements in South Africa

Land, Labour and Apartheid

Circa 1950s the interior of a mine workers hostel © Museum AfricaCirca 1950s the interior of a mine workers hostel © Museum Africa

Land and labour are two very important elements of the economic development of a society, and the way they are used will influence how the society develops. In South African history there has always been the fight for ownership of land and the need for cheap labour. Government policies over the years have tried to solve this problem in different ways.

Land

At the start of the twentieth century, in 1910, the whole of South Africa was united under one government. Until this time, the Cape and Natal had been colonies controlled by the British, and the Transvaal and Free State were areas under Boer control. The South Africa War was fought at the end of the 19th century, leaving all the land in the hands of the British. The rights of the black population were generally not taken into account, although they did still live scattered across South Africa. Some black tribes had been forced off their land over the years and had resettled.

After the Union of South Africa, 1910, land in South Africa was divided. In 1913 the government passed the Land Act. This Act decided how the land in South Africa was going to be divided between black and white people. At this time there was no apartheid policy in place, but the government did want to prevent black and white people from mixing together. The policy is known as the policy of segregation, and would later be replaced with the policy of apartheid in 1948.

The 1913 Land Act set aside 7.5% of the land in South Africa for black people. The Act also said that black people could not get more land outside of their tribal areas. The Act caused a problem for black people who worked on white land but had their own piece of ground. These people, known as share-croppers, had to decide between working for the white farm owners or moving to areas set aside for black people. The situation with the 1913 Land Act became only very slightly better in 1936 when the Native Trust and Land Act increased the amount of land to just over 10% of South Africa.

Labour

During the same period the government saw the need for cheap labour to work on the mines and on farms. The government needed to make sure that people did come to the towns, and for this reason they introduced taxes that needed to be paid. This meant that young men left their families for a while to come to the cities to earn some money. This money was then given over to the chief to pay taxes. This became known as the system of migrant labour - people moved across the country, often far from home, to work for a short while and then return to their families. There were few job opportunities in the black areas, so they had to go to the cities to get cash to pay the government taxes.

The system of migrant labour led to some problems developing in black society:

  • young men sometimes could not marry until they had done a certain amount of labour for the chief
  • families were disrupted
  • farms were left in the hands of women and young children
  • men in the cities became used to the western way of life, and did not want to settle on the farms again
  • the tribal and traditional society was broken up

The government also introduced laws to protect white labour - reserving certain jobs for white people only, and other jobs were kept for black people only. The jobs that white people did were normally better paid, although there were also some poor whites.

During Apartheid

The situation with regard to labour and land remained more or less the same during the apartheid period. With regard to labour, the policy of protected labour remained in place, strengthened by the Bantu Education Policy. The system of migrant labour continued, although more black people started settling in white areas, leading to the establishment of townships. Many men continued to come to the city without their wives, which led to the deterioration of the family system and unfaithfulness in marriages. Workers in the mines had to stay on the mine premises where their wives could not stay. They stayed in rooms with many other men. Women increasingly came to the towns to get work as domestic workers, leaving their children behind to be looked after by other family members.

The land laws were made stricter in the apartheid period, although the amount of land allocated to the black people did increase slightly. Black people were not allowed to live in white areas, and could not own land in these areas. This meant that those staying in townships could not own their land. The apartheid government also removed black people from some areas and declared these areas white. The apartheid government had a policy called the homeland policy. According to this policy, black people would all become citizens of independent black homelands. The government said that black people should settle in their own homeland, own land there and have political freedom there. Many black people were born in these urban areas and had never been to the countryside that was suddenly declared their 'homeland' by the white government. These homelands were usually not on the most fertile soil or in the best area, making economic success impossible, especially with the overcrowding and poor facilities. It was planned that all black people would eventually live in the 'homelands', and some would commute to work in the white areas. Essentially the 'homelands' were desolate, depressed labour pools for white business to obtain cheap workers. The apartheid state invented the idea of separate homelands that emphasized division and difference between the different tribes in South Africa' Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Pedi, etc. This was a 'divide and rule' strategy which made up myths about how the government thought black people were completely separate from each other. The reason for this was that it made apartheid seem more logical (no mixing between races) and also ensured that the different groups could not all join together against the government. The truth was somewhat different: e.g. some tribes had been intermarrying for years and separation caused great sadness and social turmoil (e.g. the Shangaan and Venda). Some homelands that were created were Transkei, Ciskei, Bophuthatswana and Lebowa to name a few.